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Editorial: The Brexit deal has now become law. It must not become dogma

THE European Parliament has finally voted to ratify the trade agreement with post-EU Britain. 

Seventeen months and numerous revisions after Boris Johnson won an election by selling it to the public as “oven-ready,” this means his much-vaunted Brexit deal has legal force. 

Few will notice. The provisions of the deal have been in effect for some time despite the delay in ratification. European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen called on MEPs to pass it not to improve relations with Britain but to “give us the tools we need to ensure full and faithful compliance,” including the ability to slap punitive tariffs on British goods.

The EU has repeatedly accused Britain of breaching the terms of the agreement, especially with regard to Northern Ireland, whose first minister Arlene Foster announced her resignation today.

Though the revolt in the Democratic Unionist Party has apparently been triggered by ideological tripwires particular to Northern Ireland — abortion and the status of the Irish language — the “deep concern about the future of unionism, Ulster conservatism and the DUP” cited by rebellious councillors is undoubtedly linked to the increasingly unsustainable character of Irish partition following Brexit.

Those quick to blame the Leave vote for recent outbreaks of loyalist violence in Northern Ireland might note that the British decision which provoked the EU to threaten legal action (and now, potentially, tariffs) was actually a bid to give businesses in the north more time to comply with new border checks in the Irish Sea. 

But even if the EU, rather than Britain, was insisting on a “hard border” between Britain and the whole of Ireland, the real problem with the Remain tendency’s use of the Irish border question has been its presentation of an unjust status quo as untouchable.

In seeing any deviation from present arrangements as catastrophic — even if, in Ireland’s case, it advances the conditions for reunification, which socialists and anti-imperialists support — it shared much with the Remain attitude to the Brexit deal as a whole, which fluctuated, according to political circumstance, between bids to sabotage it if doing so could be used to reverse the Leave vote itself, and attempts to replicate every aspect of EU membership within it.

This attitude must not now be extended to the deeply unsatisfactory deal now endorsed by the British and European parliaments.

As Labour’s former leader Jeremy Corbyn noted when voting against it last year, “this deal does not break free of state aid or public procurement restrictions, or of commitments to competition and privatisation of public services.”

Our attitude to clashes between Brussels and London on implementation of the deal should not therefore be rooted in loyalty to the agreement itself, like the claim levelled by Brussels and taken up by many on the left here that Britain was breaking international law by deviating from it.

We know from the EU’s illegal migrant pushback treaty with Turkey and its systematic co-operation with the Libyan coastguard in returning refugees to that warzone that it cares nothing for international law. Nor has any high principle been observable in its ugly vaccine tug-of-war with Britain.

Socialists in this country will not be alone in seeking to challenge it — communist and left voices in the European Parliament today made clear their willingness to do so — and politicians in England, Scotland, Wales or Ireland must not be allowed to hide behind its terms, as they so often did with EU membership, to rule out nationalisations, public assistance to industry or progressive changes to procurement law.

A deal that enshrines “free and undistorted competition in trade and investment relations” and bans “anticompetitive business practices [that] may distort the proper functioning of markets” does not deserve respect or compliance from the left. The market model has failed the British and European peoples. No treaty should stop us from breaking with it.

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